Reflections on Ecclesia de Eucharistia - 3

Author: Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J.


Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J.

The intimate bond between Eucharist and Church

The formula "the Eucharist builds the Church, and the Church makes the Eucharist", which appears in Ecclesia deEucharistia, n. 26, is not new. The formula was used on various occasions by Cardinal Henri de Lubac, whose work presumably influenced the present Encyclical.1

The same idea is implicitly contained in the teaching of Vatican II, which stated in Sacrosanctum Concilium that the Liturgy is both "the summit to which the activity of the Church tends and the font from which all her power flows" (n. 10). Later in the same article we read that among all liturgical actions the Eucharist is the principal source of grace and sanctification.

The ecclesial fruitfulness of the Eucharist can be better understood if we ponder the inmost nature of the Church herself. The Church is variously described as the Body of Christ, the People of God of the New Covenant, the sacrament of unity, and the communion of believers in Christ. All four of these images can likewise be applied to the Eucharist.

The Church and the Eucharist as the Body of Christ

The image of the Church as Body of Christ originates with St Paul, who declares that all the members of the body, though many, are one body in Christ (I Cor 12:12). He clearly understands that the unity of the ecclesial body has its source in the eucharistic body of Christ. ''The bread which we break", he asks, "is it not the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread" (I Cor 10:16-17).

The Holy Father, after quoting this text, develops the analogy by quoting St John Chrysostom on the manner in which the many grains of wheat in the one loaf symbolize the unity of the Church, made up as it is of many persons all incorporated into Christ (cf. Ecclesia deEucharistia, n. 23). For the Church to realize herself as a single sacramental or mystical body, made up of many members animated by the same Spirit, she must nourish herself at the Eucharist.

Several years before the present Encyclical, Cardinal Ratzinger expressed the same point. He wrote:

"The formula 'The Church is the Body of Christ' thus states that the Eucharist, in which the Lord gives us his body and makes us one body, forever remains the place where the Church is generated, where the Lord himself never ceases to be found anew; in the Eucharist the Church is most compactly herself — in all places, yet one only, just as he is one only".2

The Church as sacrament, the Eucharist as supreme sacrament

The Church is, in the second place, a sacrament. Vatican II called her a "visible sacrament of saving unity" (Lumen Gentium, n. 9), the "universal sacrament of salvation" (ibid.,n. 48). The same may be said of the Eucharist, the supreme sacrament. According to Thomas Aquinas and others, the Eucharist is the efficacious sign of the unity of the Church.3

The presence of Christ, without detriment to its real and substantial nature, may be called mystical or sacramental, since it is realized under the forms of bread and wine. The signs, as already mentioned, signify unity, since the bread is one loaf made up of many grains and the wine is one cup from many grapes. "In the sacrament of the eucharistic bread, the unity of the faithful... is both expressed and brought about" (Lumen Gentium, n. 3; cf. Ecclesia deEucharistia, n. 21).

By strengthening the Church in unity, the Eucharist enables the Church to be, like itself, the sacrament of unity. The Church thus becomes the sign of a renewed humanity, used by the Lord as an instrument for the redemption of all (cf. Lumen Gentium, n. 9). The Eucharist, standing at the very centre of the visible Church, is the vital source of her unitive dynamism.

Church as covenant, Eucharist as sacrament of covenant

Thirdly, the Church is the new Israel — the people of God of the New Covenant. Through this covenant we are constituted as "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people" (I Pt 2:9-10). The first Israel was established by the Sinai Covenant, when Moses sprinkled the altar and the people with the blood of goats and bulls (Ex 24:8; cf. Heb 9:13; also Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n. 21). Jesus Christ formed the new and definitive Israel by instituting the Eucharist as the New Covenant in his blood, which was to be shed on Calvary (cf. Mt 26:28; I Cor 11:25).

Just as the Last Supper looked forward to the Crucifixion, the Mass looks back to it. Every celebration of Holy Mass is a renewal of the covenant by which the Church stands. The Church as a covenant people regenerates herself by returning to her own roots.

Church as community and Eucharist as communion

Finally, the Church is a communion; that is to say, a community of believers in Christ, enlivened by his Holy Spirit. According to Vatican II, Christ instituted the Church to bring her members into a communion of life, charity and truth (cf. Lumen Gentium, n. 9). Eucharistic Communion brings the members of the Church into such a communion with Christ their Lord. Just as the Eucharist would be incomplete if the sacrificial banquet did not lead to Holy Communion, so too the Church would be incomplete if she did not achieve among her members a communion of grace and love.

The communion among the Church's members within history will always be incomplete and fragile. It constantly needs to be renewed by sacramental Communion. By means of Holy Communion the Eucharist prepares the Church to enter into the fullness of communion in the life to come.

His Holiness Pope John Paul II explains this in one of his catechetical lectures: "Especially in the Eucharist and through the Eucharist, the Church contains in herself the seed of a truly universal and eternal communion, the definitive union in Christ of everything in heaven and on earth, as Paul has told us (cf. Eph 1:10)".4

The analogy between the Eucharist and the Church could be further explored if we were to reflect on the attributes of the Church. The Holy Father reminds his readers in Chapter Three of his Encyclical that the Creed confesses the Church to be one, holy, catholic and apostolic. He goes on to show how these four attributes are applicable to the Eucharist.

One and catholic, the Eucharist is celebrated in all times and places without detriment to its unity. As the real and substantial presence of Christ, the Eucharist is uniquely holy. It is apostolic, especially because the priest-celebrant must be ordained in the apostolic succession.

The present essay, focused as it is on Chapter Two, will leave the four attributes of the Church and the Eucharist to be more fully explored by others.


1 Henri de Lubac, The Splendor of the Church (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 134. This is a translation of the Meditation surI'Église, 1953. De Lubac explores the same theme at greater length in his Corpus Mysticum:L'Eucharistie et l'église au Moyen-Âge (1944).

2 Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Calledto Communion (SanFrancisco: Ignatius Press, 1996), 37.

3 Thomas Aquinas, SummaTheologiae, III, qu. 73, art, 2, sed contra; cf. art. 3c.

4 General Audience of January 15, 1992; in John Paul II, The Church: Mystery,Sacrament, Community (Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 1998), 124.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
30 July 2003, page 3

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